How Cairo's inhabitants are coping with one of the hottest weeks in memory

Seeking sanctuary in public parks, on the Nile's banks or in air-conditioned mosques, Egyptians have come up with many ways to avoid an intense heatwave

An Egyptian teenager jumps into the water of the Nile River at Al Qanater Al Khayreya, as Cairo temperatures rise to 43ºC.  EPA
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To escape one of the hottest weeks in living memory, Cairo’s large population are leaving home and heading to the city’s public parks and the banks of the Nile, in the hope of catching a breezy reprieve.

A heatwave that began on Sunday and is expected to continue for 10 days, according to a forecast from Egypt’s national weather service, has also driven up power use dramatically.

The government has been forced to periodically shut down the national grid in certain areas to reduce the toll on power stations and conserve the natural gas used to fuel them, as demand reached 11 per cent more than the same time last year.

The power cuts left many unable to use fans, the most common cooling method for poorer Egyptians who cannot afford the air conditioning units used by the more affluent.

“Staying indoors in this heat is unbearable, especially when they started turning off the power,” says Sherihan Hassan, 40, a mother of five.

“So as soon as it gets dark, everyone leaves their homes. Some just sit out in the open air in front of their houses if they don’t want to spend money. But mostly they go to parks or to a cafe on the Corniche.”

The stretches of the Nile river in Cairo’s centre were overcrowded with visitors.

Some lounged on plastic chairs before makeshift coffee stands while others bought salted lupini beans, a local street delicacy, as they strolled on Qasr Al Nil and Abbas bridges.

Al Gamaa public park in the Greater Cairo district of Giza, despite its size, was so overcrowded on Wednesday that families were turned away because it had reached maximum capacity.

“It’s the second park we’ve tried to get into tonight,” Momen Aly, 36, tells The National. “They’re all full, no one wants to stay inside it seems.

“We brought our food with us and were going to spend a couple of hours here, but we’re going to go down to Abbas bridge instead. There’s a good breeze there.”

But while some have chosen to head outdoors, others, who can’t afford daily outings amid record high inflation, have come up with more creative ways to cool themselves.

Ms Hassan’s son Omar, 12, has developed the interesting habit of filling up “about a third” of their bathtub and lying in it in the dark during periods when the power is off – typically one hour at a time for an average four times a day.

Her other son, Mohamed, 14, has started spending an inordinate amount of time in the local mosque to escape the heat.

“I was really surprised to see him acting so pious,” Ms Hassan says. “He’s always on his phone, playing [video game] PubG and he only used to pray after a lot of pressure.

“Suddenly, starting earlier this week, he can’t get enough of the mosque. He takes his little brother for every one of the five prayers and they come back at least an hour after the call is overs.

“I had hoped that they were strengthening their relationship with God but I soon found out it’s because the mosque is air-conditioned round the clock and he takes his phone with him and plays his game in there, too.”

And then there are some Egyptians, such as Shaaban Ramadan, 28, a security guard in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, who do not have the luxury of escaping because of jobs that force them to stand in the scorching heat for hours on end.

Mr Ramadan, an unskilled labourer from a small village in a rural part of Giza, said he is employed by a private security company outsourced by a Chinese company, which has signed contracts to use buildings in the new capital.

He is forced to wear a short-sleeved shirt as a uniform during his shifts, from 6am each day until a bus takes him to quarters provided by the company in the lower-income satellite city of Badr, near the new capital.

Because of the extended periods spent in the sun, the exposed parts of Mr Ramadan’s arms have turned a dark, reddish brown, while the rest was his natural olive tone.

“Jobs like this are usually for people whose employment options are limited, so we’re not choosy,” he says.

“But because we work under strict rules, many people can’t take the pressure so there is a high employee turnover as well.

“Over the past week, eight of our regular guys quit their jobs after spending days in this heat. One guy was taken to the clinic with heatstroke.”

Haleema Mohamed, 68, whose husband was a live-in doorman at an upscale apartment building in the Cairo district of Heliopolis until his death 15 years ago, has developed a strategic method of avoiding the heat while making ends meet.

After her husband’s death, Ms Mohamed was sent from the building because the owners felt a woman would not be able to guard it against intruders.

But she had been living on that street for 20 years at that point, and had formed strong bonds with its residents. She also had nowhere else to go.

“I couldn’t really live there any more, so I moved to Nasr City nearby and I come here everyday to park cars or do any house chores that any of the ladies on the street need, and it’s how I feed myself,” Ms Mohamed says.

She dresses in a billowing black abaya from Upper Egypt, a southern region of the country known for its strict religiosity, conservative traditions and rampant poverty.

Although the garment accomplishes its goal of making Ms Mohamed look more modest, it also makes her overheat throughout the day.

“I have noticed that a nice breeze comes in around noon around this large tree over there,” she says, pointing to a large canopy that shaded passers-by on Heliopolis’s Omar Ibn Al Khattab Street.

“In the afternoon, I go sit under this other tree on the other side of the street. I have spent this last week moving from tree to tree in search of a breeze.”

As Egyptians have been given a long weekend to mark two occasions – Islamic New Year and the revolution that took place on July 23, 1952, abolishing the monarchy in Egypt – those who can afford it have also left the capital for beach resorts, turning Cairo into a ghost town on Thursday.

Updated: July 22, 2023, 4:43 AM